Nearly 20 years ago, the political writer Thomas Frank authored a bestseller to which he gave the title What’s the Matter with Kansas? It was one of the first books of the post-Bill Clinton era to try to nail the rightwing populism redefining middle America. Mr Frank, who is himself from Kansas, chose the title deliberately. Despite an earlier history of grassroots antitrust activism, 20th- and 21st-century Kansas had dug in ever deeper against progressivism; no Democratic presidential candidate has now won there since 1964. Donald Trump, who epitomises everything about which Mr Frank wrote, carried Kansas with ease in 2016 and 2020.
At the heart of Mr Frank’s argument was the view that culture war campaigns on abortion and gay equality have been crucial in persuading economically insecure Kansas voters to move ever more solidly rightwards. Much of the book focuses on how the Democratic party itself contributed to the shift. The consequence of this process seemed to reach an even darker place in 2009 when the pro-choice doctor George Tiller was murdered in the Kansas city of Wichita.
Yet on Tuesday voters in Kansas chose to make a stand. In an unexpectedly high turnout contest, they voted to uphold the state’s abortion rights by a 59% to 41% margin. They did this in the face of the widely held view that the US supreme court’s decision to overturn the Roe v Wade judgment has reset America’s political landscape more conservatively. They also defied the expectation that Republicans, not Democrats, would be more energised by the campaign.
It is possible that there were special local factors at play in Kansas. The voting paper was confusingly written; abortion rights supporters had to vote “No” not “Yes” to keep the state’s protections. Tuesday was also a day in which hardline conservatives, supporting and supported by Mr Trump, scored well in other states, such as Arizona. Caution is therefore in order in extrapolating too recklessly from the Kansas vote. Nevertheless, the vote was a rallying call. If 59% of the people can vote for abortion rights in Kansas, the likelihood is that at least 59% will vote for them in many other states too, perhaps in at least 40 of the 50. It is also very much in line with national polling showing 57% national disapproval after the supreme court’s ruling. President Biden was right to emphasise in his reaction to the Kansas vote that the majority of Americans support women’s abortion rights.
In Kansas at least, the justices have not, after all, had the last word. Most of all, this vote was important for the women of the state. But it has two wider implications. The first is that democracy has hit back, not just at the supreme court ruling, but also at the false idea that the court should have the final say in American politics. The second is that abortion rights may prove to be a potent mobilising issue in the November midterm elections more generally, which indeed they should be. It is high time that Democrats realised they do not have to campaign on economic issues alone and instead took the fight for abortion rights to the Republicans. The Kansas vote should embolden them to do so.